Mrs. Good Retch

Many states around the country have launched antitobacco campaigns, but none has captured the imagination--or turned the stomachs--of television and radio audiences like the one sponsored by the Arizona Department of Health Services.

Who could forget these great moments in antismoking propaganda:
A Dr. Frankenstein-type sniffing the lungs of a smoker?
An unsuspecting teenage girl at a movie sipping from her date's cup, which is full of tobacco spittle?

A disgruntled dog peeing on the cigarette of his puffing teen master?
Compare the techniques in this campaign with other antismoking efforts--including juvenile cartoons and preachy "Just Say No" sermons--and the difference immediately becomes clear.

Arizona's ads are gross.
Not just "I'm gonna show you my chewed-up grilled cheese sandwich" gross, or even "Here's a smoker's lung in a jar of formaldehyde" gross, but really gross.

Consider the recent radio spot in which a kid describes how smelly, yellow pus from the eye of a rotting bird shoots into his mouth.

Tastes just like chewing tobacco.
The twisted genius behind these gross-outs is not a Howard Stern, John Waters or David Lynch--but rather one Amy Dominy, the seemingly prim mother of two who's alternately referred to by colleagues as "Mary Poppins" and "Pollyanna."

Dominy, 33, is a senior copywriter at Riester Corporation, the Phoenix advertising agency that handles the state's multimillion-dollar antismoking campaign. The campaign is funded by a 40-cent tax on tobacco products approved by Arizona voters in 1995.

The state's antismoking campaign includes a handful of ethereal, tear-jerking radio and television spots aimed at pregnant women (also penned by Dominy), but most attention has gone to the series targeted at adolescents, ages 10 to 16.

Riester Corporation's creative director, Dave Robb, says no studies have been conducted yet to determine the impact of the ad campaign. In fact, experts say, it's all but impossible to quantify the impact, since there are so many variables that could potentially keep kids from smoking.

Meanwhile, as the Nineties wane, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports smoking among teenagers continues to increase--despite the efforts of government antismoking campaigns.

Florida, which also has an antismoking campaign, has delved into the gross, with ads titled "Cow Farts" and "Toilet," but none comes close to being as gross and as hip and as popular as Arizona's.

Kristen McCall, health communications specialist for the CDC in Atlanta, Georgia, says she's been bombarded with requests for Arizona's ads since a licensing agreement made them available late last year to other states and nonprofit groups.

When they sat down in 1995 to create a proposal for the antismoking campaign, Riester's Robb, Dominy and art director Shawn Eichenauer knew their goal: not to convince kids that smoking is uncool, but that it's cool not to smoke.

Figuring out how to do that, however, was quite a challenge.
Dominy scribbled what was to become the campaign's famous tag line--"Tobacco. Tumor causing, teeth staining, smelly, puking habit"--on a paper napkin during an impromptu brainstorming session. The element of "grossness" was a part of the campaign from the very beginning, with "Movie Snacks" and "Frankenstein," and the ads' intensity increased as Riester Corporation saw kids' reactions during focus-group testing.

"We kind of walked before we ran into this area," says creative director Robb.

The other challenge facing Riester is keeping its campaign hip. If adults think the ads are cool, kids won't. Thus, teachers are admonished for wearing tee shirts with the campaign's slogan.

Unlike her colleagues, Dominy apparently is so unhip she doesn't wear black or a visible toe ring. She's got bobbed hair and round glasses, jeans and a gray tee. A cat she had as a child that hid birds under her bed provided the creative spark for "Pus," the radio spot about the rotting bird.

"It's a cold, dark place in Amy's brain," Robb says, giggling, referring to the inspiration for the ad. "She never ceases to scare me."

Dominy's colleagues roar at the recollection of their Mary Poppins reading the ad's script for Department of Health Services director Dr. Jack Dillenberg. They say Dillenberg loved it. DHS officials refused to comment.

Riester's creative team says it's only been turned down by DHS once, on the basis of grossness. That concerned a poster that offered a list of synonyms for words like "farting" and "vomiting," eventually equating those terms with cigarette smoke and chewing tobacco.

The trend toward gross is a last-ditch effort. The nation's best-known antidrug campaign was a flop; today, the phrase "Just Say No" is equated with the failed war on drugs. The Partnership for a Drug-Free America has come out with some innovative, shocking ads decrying heroin use, but for the most part, antidrug--particularly, antitobacco--advertising has been far less sophisticated than the sales techniques used by the tobacco companies themselves.

For example, Scholastic Magazine and the American Lung Association have released a book called The Berenstain Bear Scouts and the Sinister Smoke Ring, about the dangers of the "Moose Tobacco Company" and its false advertising.

The American Medical Association has a cartoon character called "The Extinguisher," who snatches kids from the jaws of the tobacco industry.

Compare that with "Smoked Meat," one of Riester Corporation's spots, in which a cannibal screws up his nose at a steaming stew, complaining, "I said I wanted smoked tourist, not a tourist who smoked!"

"Pus" the radio spot is so popular, Riester has heard from kids who want to know when the television version will appear. (No such plans, kids.) Robb says he knows a 3-year-old who can recite the script verbatim.

An extremely unscientific New Times study reveals that not every kid is impressed. Katie Daryl Sotak, 17, a senior at Xavier College Preparatory in Phoenix, says she's followed the campaign, and while the ads are attention-grabbing, she doesn't necessarily equate them with the antismoking message.

Sotak and other kids say the ads may be popular, but they don't appear to be diminishing the popularity of smoking.

And not every kid likes to be grossed out. For Sotak, "Pus" was definitely over the top. "I thought that was rather vulgar," she says.

That leads to a question: Just how gross is too gross?
"Human feces. We stay away from human feces," Dominy says. But she adds thoughtfully, "We haven't really explored pus and body pus and scabs."

Riester Corporation recently completed filming for the next television spot, which is due to air in the next couple of weeks.

The ad execs wouldn't say much, beyond that the ad is titled "Maggot."
"But it's gross!" Dominy promises, in a stage whisper.

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Amy Silverman is a two-time winner of the Arizona Press Club’s Journalist of the Year award. Her work has appeared on the radio show This American Life and in the New York Times, the Washington Post, Lenny Letter, and Brain, Child. She’s the co-curator of the live reading series Bar Flies, and a commentator for KJZZ, the NPR affiliate in Phoenix. Silverman is the author of the book My Heart Can’t Even Believe It: A Story of Science, Love, and Down Syndrome (Woodbine House 2016). Follow her on Instagram (@amysilverman), Twitter (@amysilvermanaz), and at